by Raven Blackmane
September 3, 1999 CR.
Abbey Preston pulled her duffel bag out of the back of the taxi and let it fall to the ground with a soft whump. She looked up at the building in front of her and suppressed a shiver that had little to do with the cool evening air. It was a towering edifice in High Gothic style, all pointed arches, circular windows and dark polished granite. Stone gargoyles sat perched over the doorway, glaring balefully down at any supplicants who dared ascend the steps to the front entrance. A wrought iron fence enclosed a small yard, a rare thing on the Street here in Metamor City -- but then, everything about the building defied convention. Though it sat in the shadow of skyscrapers hundreds of meters high, the ancient structure remained defiantly proud, standing out among the warehouses and factories of the Street like a cold, hard gemstone amid a pile of scattered refuse and rusty, discarded tools. It was a building designed to provoke awe -- and, Abbey thought, fear.
"Yo, lady!" the cabbie called out the window. "The meter's still running, babe."
"...Oh, sorry," Abbey said, giving him a brief smile she didn't feel. She glanced at the meter, fished out two twenty-mark bills from her pocket and passed them through the window. "Thank you again."
"No problem," the man said, giving her a casual salute with the tips of his first two fingers. "You have yourself a good day, miss." He leaned forward and looked up dubiously at the building outside. "And watch your back, eh?"
"Thank you. I will."
The taxi-skimmer flew off, headed for the nearest available lift back to the upper levels of the city. Abbey shouldered her duffel and headed into the fenced yard and up the steps, trying to ignore the gaze of the stone figures overhead. As she stepped into the archway before the front doors, she felt a sudden shift of perspective--
--darkness, cold and heavy, thick like smoke ... sharp white teeth hanging overhead and jutting from below, like walking into a predator's throat--
--and then her hand was on the door handle.
She stopped and closed her eyes, willing her racing heart to calm itself, shuddering at the chill that seemed to go all the way to her bones. She brushed a lock of gold- and brown-streaked hair out of her face, wiping away the cold sweat that had suddenly broken out on her forehead.
Steady, Abbey, she told herself. You can do this. You have to.
Taking one more deep breath, she opened the door and stepped inside.
Abbey looked up as a short, gray-haired woman, perhaps in her late fifties, approached her from a narrow side corridor. She was dressed in severe, traditional garments of black and white, with the emblem of the yew tree prominently embroidered on the front of her outer robe. She gave Abbey a brief smile, very prim and reserved. She looked up and down at Abbey as she approached, sizing her up with keen blue eyes. Abbey sensed genuine compassion there, but it was partially veiled behind a sharp analytical mind and an air of professional detachment. Abbey felt vaguely uncomfortable, as if parts of her were being sorted and filed away for future reference.
She managed a smile anyway. "Yes," she said, bowing to the older woman. "Please, call me Abbey. You must be Mother Annabelle."
"That's right," she replied, bowing briefly in return. "You may call me Mother Anna, if you wish. Welcome to Saint Theresa's School and Halfway House. Why don't I show you where you can set down that bag of yours, and then I'll give you the tour."
"That sounds good, thank you."
They stepped out of the lobby and into a high, soaring cathedral, the sort of place that people just didn't build anymore. Abbey felt small and insignificant as they walked down the center aisle, headed for the doors at the back of the hall.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Mother Anna said, her voice full of pride. "Saint Theresa's used to be the central chapel for the diocese, you know. Built over seven hundred years ago, after the Citadel was formed and Metamor City expanded into the surrounding valley." She waved a hand in mild irritation. "Of course, after those awful skyways went up and people forgot how to live with their feet on the ground, the bishop ordered a new cathedral to be built higher up. But I like to think we've found our mission down here, helping poor young girls like yourself to find their way again."
They passed out of the cathedral and into a long, narrow corridor, dimly lit by chandeliers and decorated in rich, warm reds and darker earth tones. Mirrors lined the walls, interspersed with yew-tree crucifixes and icons of the saints, giving the impression that the passage was wider than it actually was. The doors along the corridor were a dark, heavy wood, with cast-iron handles. To Abbey, it felt like stepping centuries back into the past.
She caught her own reflection in a mirror as they walked past. She was rather plain-looking, with dark brown eyes, a heart-shaped face, and slightly pudgy cheeks that made her look substantially younger than her nineteen years. She was of average height, about a hundred and sixty-seven centimeters, and while she wasn't technically overweight she was not what most men would call slender, either. Her stomach still stuck out a little where it had once been distended, an inevitable consequence of--
--on her knees, clutching her swollen belly, warm sticky wetness seeping out around her hands and dribbling down her back, five neat little holes inside her, long slender fingers like knives dripping blood--
She stumbled, putting one hand to the wall and the other to the pale white scars across her belly.
Mother Anna had stopped and was looking back at her, frowning. "Abbey, dear, are you all right?"
Abbey reached under the hem of her shirt and ran her fingers along the scars. Three scars, not five. Three scars. "That's not how it happened," she whispered, leaning heavily on the wall for support. "Three times, three times. Not five." She shook her head, and the motion felt almost meaningless against the violent trembling that ran through her whole body. "Not five. Knife, not fingers. In, but not through. Not real. Not real."
Mother Anna reached for her hand. "Abbey, honey, what's--"
"Don't touch me!" Abbey shouted, backing away and holding her hands up. "You -- you don't want to touch me. Not now." She shook her head again. "Not now. Not safe." She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, let it out, took another. "Not safe," she whispered.
There was a pause. "All ... all right," Mother Anna said at last. "You must be very tired, dear. Why don't you come with me, we'll take your bag up to your room, and then we can get you something to drink. A glass of water, maybe some hot tea -- is that all right?"
Abbey took a few more deep, heavy breaths, then nodded. "All right. All right."
Mother Anna turned and led the way down the corridor. They turned right at an intersection, then went up a set of stairs to the second floor. It was a stark contrast to the first floor: everything here was cool and clean, pale yellow walls and floors of linoleum and short, institutional carpets in an unremarkable shade of brown. The windows let in what little light managed to filter down to the Street through the skyways above, but the only view to be seen was the fenced-in yard below and the smooth, pale gray edifice of the super-skyscraper next door. Evidently they were now somewhere on the south side of the school complex, which had been to Abbey's right when she faced the entrance.
There was a little sitting room here with some couches, chairs and coffee tables, and another yew-tree crucifix on the wall -- Abbey was pretty sure there had been at least one in sight at all times since she entered the building. There was a small TV with a vid-disc player in one corner of the room, and at the moment two girls were sitting and watching cartoons. One of them was on the floor with her legs crossed, only a meter or so from the screen; the other was on one of the couches, her obviously pregnant body bolstered on all sides by throw pillows. Neither one of them could have been older than fifteen.
Abbey looked away, not wanting to risk eye contact right now. She was just getting calmed down; no need to do anything that might set it off again.
To either side of the sitting room was a long hallway lined with numbered doors spaced at regular intervals. Unlike the doors downstairs, these were no more than fifty years old, made of steel with small inset windows and fully modern locks. Each door had a low, hinged flap on the bottom, tall enough for a tray with a few dishes on top.
Mother Anna must have noticed Abbey looking at the doors. "Meals are normally taken together in the cafeteria," she said as they continued walking down the right branch of the hallway. "Breakfast is from seven to eight-thirty, lunch from eleven-thirty to one, and supper from five to six-thirty. You have kitchen duty once a week on a regular rotation. If you miss a meal, you're out of luck until the next one. Services are held in the chapel at six-thirty in the morning and four in the afternoon, and attendance is mandatory. Classes are held from eight-thirty to eleven-thirty and one to four, Monday through Friday. Saturday is reserved for chores in and around the building, and Sunday is our day of rest. You have free time every day from six-thirty until eight-thirty, unless additional chores are required of you. Lights out at nine o'clock."
"Okay," Abbey said, nodding. "So, why are there flaps on the doors?"
"Some of our girls have special needs," Mother Anna said evenly. "Sometimes that means they are unable to eat with the other students."
"Because they're dangerous?" Abbey asked.
"There are any number of reasons," Anna said, keeping her eyes fixed straight ahead. "Every girl is different. It's best that you not read anything into it."
Abbey just nodded and kept walking. A moment later they came to stop at door number 267. A small metal frame next to the door held a white card with four lines on it. One of the lines read Hartmann, Jenna, in neatly written block letters. The other lines were blank.
Mother Anna glanced inside, then knocked twice and opened the door. Inside were two sets of bunk beds, one against each wall, each with a foot locker at the end near the door. At the far end of the room was a single window and a nightstand that was shared by both sets of beds. Another of the ubiquitous crucifixes was mounted on the left wall, and a Canticle sat on the nightstand next to a few notepads and pens. On the top bunk on the right side, a girl a couple of years younger than Abbey lay on her stomach, propped up on her elbows and reading a book. Her feet swung back and forth, knees flexing and extending with the restless energy of youth, as her long, pointed tail drew lazy circles in the air. Her skin was a deep tan with a vaguely ruddy cast that Abbey had rarely seen. Her hair was straight, thick and black, and cut off just above her shoulders. Abbey could see long, pointed ears poking through her hair, and a pair of short, stubby horns protruding from just above her forehead.
The girl looked over to the door, her exotic yellow eyes lighting up as they fell on Abbey. She grinned. "Heya!" she said.
Abbey smiled uncomfortably, not quite looking the other girl in the eyes. "Hi."
"Jenna, this is Abbey," Mother Anna said. "She's going to be your roommate for the next week, while she decides whether she wants to join us for a more extended duration. I trust that I can count on you to help her get settled in?"
"Sure thing, Mother," Jenna said, hopping down to the floor with remarkable agility. "Here, let me take that bag for ya."
Abbey took the duffel off her shoulder and passed it to Jenna, who stepped over to the bunk beds opposite her own. "You like top or bottom?" she asked. "Top gets the locker, bottom gets the space under the bed."
"Bottom, please," Abbey said.
"That's good," Jenna said. "'Cause I love being on top." She winked, then set the duffel on the lower bunk. "Anything special you want me to show her, Mother?" she asked.
If the older woman noticed the subtext, she made no sign of it. "Not right now, dear. We're going to leave Abbey's things here for now while I show her around. I'll be sure to have her back before lights out so you two have a chance to get to know each other a little bit."
Jenna's eyes swung down the length of Abbey's body and back up again -- a similar action to what Mother Anna had done upon first meeting her, but with entirely different undertones. "I can't wait," she said, winking again.
Abbey turned and walked out the door, followed closely by Mother Anna.
"She seems ... friendly," Abbey said.
"Jenna is one of our long-term residents here at the school," Anna said, her voice warm with approval. "She's so helpful -- doing more than her share of chores, showing the new girls around. Always making new friends."
Abbey didn't doubt that for a minute. "Why is she here?"
"Her mother died when she was three, and her father ... wasn't fit to raise a child," Anna said. "We took her in and raised her here; it's hard to find good homes that would be tolerant of Jenna's mixed ancestry. In another year she'll be old enough to leave, if she likes, but I'm hoping she'll stay on and help part-time while she goes to university. Living here would certainly be more spiritually healthy for her than being in some godless dormitory."
Abbey resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Makes sense," she said instead. "But if she loves people so much, why doesn't she have any roommates?"
"Normally, she does. But since she has seniority among the girls and needs little observation, she gets precedence when vacancies crop up. Besides, we like to keep her available to help acclimate new students, whenever possible."
"And there have been a lot of vacancies lately?"
Mother Anna's mouth settled into a thin line. "A few more than usual, yes."
Abbey wrung her hands awkwardly. "I heard a rumor that there have been some deaths here in the last few months," she said. "Suicides."
"Abbey, dear, you shouldn't listen to rumors," Anna said chidingly. "People tell all sorts of crazy stories about life on the Street. Come on, now, and I'll show you the cafeteria."
Not waiting for Abbey to reply, Mother Anna quickened her step and passed in front of her, heading down the hallway. Abbey watched her walk away--
--watched it walk away, leaving her in a pool of her own blood, pausing in the doorway, turning back, mad yellow eyes glowing, jaws grinning, teeth shining like needles, knifelike fingers red and dripping, it giggles as she falls to the floor--
--the floor rushed up suddenly, smacking against her cheek and arms as she went skidding across the linoleum. Mother Anna was looking back at her, frowning again.
"Are you all right, dear?"
Shaking, Abbey struggled to her feet, bracing herself against the wall. "I-- I'm fine," she managed, brushing her hair out of her eyes again. "I just tripped."
"Well, be careful, honey. These floors can be slippery." She turned and began walking off, more slowly this time so Abbey could catch up. After taking a moment to calm her pounding heart, she did so.
Abbey made it through the rest of the tour without experiencing any further episodes. Mother Anna offered her a drink when they reached the cafeteria, but she declined -- she wasn't really thirsty, and she was already starting to recover from the last incident. She wasn't sure if it was affecting her less strongly than before, or if she was just becoming more accustomed to processing the emotions involved. Either way, it seemed to be getting somewhat easier to deal with.
After the cafeteria Anna showed her the classrooms, the large communal showers used by the students, the nurse's office, and the gardens behind the cathedral where many of their chores took place. Surprisingly, there was even a skyball court beyond the gardens that was open to the students, though it was a relatively primitive one with only three-meter-high targets and no lev-pads or jump platforms. They got back to her room shortly after eight, and Mother Anna left her in Jenna's care. By that time it had been over half an hour since her last episode, and she was actually beginning to feel relaxed.
"So. What brings you here?" Jenna asked. She was sitting on the edge of one of the lower bunks, watching as Abbey unpacked a few of her things.
Abbey paused and considered. "I've been seeing things," she said. "Visions, I guess. Hallucinations, whatever. I'm hoping to find out why so I can make it stop."
"Uh-huh. And what makes you think coming here is gonna help?"
"A friend asked me to check it out," Abbey said. "He thought my coming here would give a fresh perspective on things. Anyway, I thought you liked it here."
"I do," Jenna said, smiling lasciviously. "People always coming ... and going ... and coming around here. Lots of new friends to meet." She rose from the bed and took a step in Abbey's direction, which was about all it took to cross the room. "After the old ladies go to bed, we'll make sure you get a more proper introduction to how things work around here." She reached out a hand, placing it on Abbey's shoulder.
"Don't touch me!" Abbey snapped, backing away, her hands going up defensively and almost curling like claws in front of her.
Jenna backed off, shocked at her reaction. "Okay, okay! I'm sorry!" she said. "Need some time to work into things, fine, I get that." A little bit of her former smile crept back onto her face. "You're missing out, though. If you decide to stick around you'll see what I mean."
Abbey sighed. "You don't understand," she said, shaking her head. "It's not safe for you to touch me."
The other girl bristled at that. "Oh, come on, that's bullshit. It's not like I'm seeping acid or anything. You don't like hell-babies, just say so. I'm a big girl, I can take it."
"That's not it," Abbey said, shaking her head. "I don't care that you're part daedra; I've met tieflings before. It doesn't bother me."
"Then what? You got something against girls liking girls? Honey, there's three million people in this city who can change sexes at the drop of a hat! Gender roles ain't exactly what they used to be. Geez, you come from the Flatlands or something?"
"That's not it either. When I said it wasn't safe, I meant for you." She swallowed, then looked up. "I'm a telepath."
Jenna's eyebrows went up. "For real?"
Abbey nodded. "For real."
"No shit. So why's it dangerous for me to touch you?"
Abbey shrugged. "Skin-to-skin contact enhances telepathic powers. Sometimes more than we can control. Next thing you know, you're seeing into me and I'm seeing into you." She looked away. "No more secrets, no more lies. Goes deep enough, and there's no more me and no more you. Just us."
"Wow. Sounds ... intimate," Jenna purred.
"You have no idea," Abbey murmured. She shook her head. "But it's like rape if you're not ready for it. Besides, the things I have floating around in my mind right now ... you don't want that inside of you. Trust me."
Jenna came over and sat down on the other bed, facing her. "Okay, I think I get it," she said, leaning down and cocking her head to look into Abbey's eyes. Her expression was serious and thoughtful. "No touching, at least until you get this mind-job of yours sorted out. Anything I can do to help?"
"I'm not sure yet," Abbey admitted. "You know about the suicides that have happened here these last few months?"
Jenna frowned. "Yeah, of course. Why, you think there's a connection to these visions of yours?"
"My friend thinks so, anyway. It's at least worth looking into. Did you know the girls who died?"
"I know everyone here," Jenna said, but Abbey could tell that the innuendo was pure reflex -- there was no humor in the words. "Trisha, Maya, and Sanji. Trisha was here for eight years, Maya for two. Sanji was the new kid -- she'd only been here a month, and it was after Trish and Maya were already gone. So, yeah. I knew 'em."
"How did they die?" Abbey asked.
Jenna shrugged listlessly, her body language as numb as her voice. It was a dramatic shift from her earlier demeanor; obviously she didn't like talking about this. "Trish stole a knife during kitchen duty; snuck into the showers at night and slit her wrists. Maya hung herself with her bed sheets. Sanji was half-demon; she drank a dozen bottles of holy water she found in one of the supply cabinets." She shook her head. "They tried to pump her stomach, but it was too late."
"Gods. I'm sorry, Jenna."
Jenna shrugged. "Not your fault."
"Did they have any history of depression? Any reason they would do that to themselves?"
Jenna snorted, a bitter and joyless sound. "Abbey, you don't end up in a place like this unless you're screwed up in one way or another. I'm one of the lucky ones -- my only problem is no decent family wants to adopt an incubus's kid, no matter how much you say you've reformed her. There's girls who come in here pregnant at thirteen, running from abusive families, strung out on Rain or Spellfire, or so fucked up by some Street-wolf's mind-control spells that they can't even remember their own names anymore. I saw a kid come in here once who had so many Fallen riding on her that she spent every night thrashing around on the floor, screaming. They had to call in some exorcist guy from the Citadel to fix that one, and the old ladies spent years afterward fixing up the mess those bastards left behind inside her." She spread her hands outward. "Everybody here's got a reason to be depressed, Abbey. Only difference between 'em is what they choose to do about it. Me, I choose to look on the bright side of things. You let yourself start thinking about all the ways the world sucks, you'll go crazy. Doesn't matter who you are."
Abbey nodded thoughtfully. "So, you've got a girl who's been dealing with it okay for eight years," she mused. "What makes her snap? What changes?"
"I don't know," Jenna said darkly. "But you find it, you let me know so I can kick its ass. Trisha was my best friend."
Abbey laid back on her bed and sighed wearily. "Deal. Whatever it is, if it has an ass, you'll be first in line to kick it." She paused, frowning as a thought struck her. "Did you say your dad was an incubus?"
"So correct me if I'm wrong, but inkies' kids are born looking human, right? And then turn into incubi and succubae when they hit puberty?"
"Right..." Jenna's eyes were starting to twinkle again; evidently she approved of the change in topic.
"Now, Mother Anna said you had a mixed ancestry, so I assumed she meant you were a tiefling. But if what we just said is true, then you're a full-blooded succubus, right? Not half-human."
Jenna smirked. "Normally, yeah, you'd be right. But if you catch a suckie before she hits puberty, and do the right sort of magic on her, you can sometimes keep her from changing completely. She still ends up with some of the daedra heritage in her looks, but if you do it just right, you can keep her essence human. No mystical powers of seduction, and no need to have sex to feed on other people's life force."
"I guess," Jenna said, noncommittally. She lay back on the bunk, staring up at the one above her. There was a brief silence.
"So," Abbey said. "Did it work? Did they do it just right?"
Jenna looked over and gave her a sly grin. "Mother thinks so," she said. "And that's all that matters."
"Ah. No wonder you wanted to get in my pants. You're hungry."
" 'Sokay," Jenna said easily, waving a hand. "It'll be lights-out soon, and I'll have lots of other opportunities. In the meantime, if you want to brush your teeth before bed, you'd better hurry. It's a good time to shower, too, if you don't like dealing with a big crowd in the mornings."
"Good point," Abbey said, getting to her feet again and rummaging for her toiletries bag. "You going to shower now, too?"
"Nah," Jenna said, grinning. "I like the crowd in the mornings. Things get so much more interesting when there are two dozen naked bodies involved."
Abbey shook her head, amazed. "I can't believe Mother Anna hasn't caught on to you yet."
Jenna shrugged. "People see what they want to see. Mother's raised me for as long as I can remember. She doesn't want to deal with what I am, and I'm not interested in forcing her. Besides, I do try to be good -- I don't hurt anybody, or take more energy than they can afford to give. And I'm not really into leading people down the primrose path of destruction, or whatever. Most people are plenty perverse enough without my help; worst I do is dial down their inhibitions a little. Most ways, I'm just a chick trying to figure things out, like everybody else." She shrugged again. "But birds gotta fly. Fish gotta swim. Cheetahs gotta run."
"And suckies gotta screw," Abbey finished.
"It's my meal ticket, honey. No shame in being what I was made to be, right? You above all people should know that."
Abbey smiled, and it was probably the most genuine smile she'd had all day. Nodding to Jenna, she went to take her shower. Whatever else happened, she knew now that she did not want to be in there tomorrow morning.
It just made her feel funny, watching someone else eat.
Abbey stood in the spray of the shower head, one of six such nozzles arrayed around a central pole, and let the water wash over her as she tried to think.
Something was wrong here, and it was more than just her own recurrent visions. For all the emotional problems that plagued the girls who came here, the information she had suggested that suicides were rare in the school's history. Three in the space of six months was unheard of. What had happened to drive Trisha, Maya and Sanji over the edge?
She looked around at the rest of the communal shower, at the nine other shower stations like the one she stood under and the drains spaced evenly across the tile floor. There were a couple of other girls in here, but they were over on the far side of the room, half-veiled in mist. Neither of them were paying any attention to Abbey.
She looked down at the drains, frowning. Six months ago Trisha had opened her veins over one of them and let the lifeblood spill out of her. From what Abbey knew of such things, it would have been a quiet, almost peaceful way to die.
But someone who was really at peace wouldn't have done such a thing. Which meant there might be something left.
Stepping out of the shower spray, Abbey paced slowly from one drain to another, her bare feet brushing over the gratings as she passed. At each one she paused, closing her eyes, focusing.
She'd gone halfway across the room when she felt a twinge run through her body. There.
Getting down on her knees, Abbey placed her hand against the grate and closed her eyes, reaching for the strange sensation that tickled at the back of her mind. Stretching out her will, she sent a wave of comfort and reassurance toward the sensation, coaxing whatever it was to come out of hiding and show itself to her. Slowly, the tickling coalesced into the sense of a presence somewhere close to her, like the feeling of someone breathing gently into her ear.
"Show me," she whispered. "Talk to me."--
--She opened her eyes.
There, in the pool of water gathering around the drain, she saw a reflection staring back at her that was not her own. A young woman, perhaps sixteen, gazed up at her with soft blue eyes from a pale white face framed with long, curly blonde hair. She was soaked and naked, like Abbey, and her hair clung to her shoulders and the upper curves of her breasts. Her lip was trembling, her expression sad and confused.
"Trisha," Abbey murmured.
The shade blinked. "Who are you?" she asked, in a voice Abbey could hear only in her mind.
"A friend," Abbey said. "Do you remember what happened to you?"
The girl frowned, as if deep in thought. "I laid down on the floor and went to sleep. It ... it was quiet."
"Why did you go to sleep, Trisha?"
The image closed her eyes, shook her head slightly. "No. Don't make me remember. Please."
"I need you to remember, Trisha," Abbey said earnestly. "Please help me. Why did you do this?"
Trisha looked at her. "To escape," she said at last. "Only way I could get away."
"What were you trying to escape from, Trisha?"
The shade's face clouded with fear. "Bad dreams," she said.
"What kind of dreams?"
"No. Don't remember," Trisha said. "Couldn't see it. No face, no name. But it was there. Always there. Every night. No way out." She shuddered. "Except one."
"How long did this go on?"
The image seemed to shrug, helplessly. "Can't remember. Weeks. Too long." She paused, and her eyes went unfocused, as if looking behind Abbey. Her mouth fell open, then closed. "It's still here. Can't stay. Have to hide."
"Trish, wait, please--" Abbey said.
"NO! Can't stay!" the girl shouted. Then, more softly, "You should go. Leave. You don't want to be here. You should hide."
"Trisha, what is--"
The girl looked up. "It's behind you," she said. Then the water rippled, and she was gone.
"Hey, you all right?" someone asked.
Abbey felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned around, looked up...
The thing hunkered there, too big for the room, a mountain of twisted flesh and shadow. Saliva dripped from huge jaws and needle teeth as mad yellow eyes shone with glee. It had one huge hand around a naked girl's throat, as the other slit her belly open, wrapping her intestines around its knifelike fingers. The girl stared at her with vacant eyes, as she held Abbey's shoulder in one weakening, outstretched hand--
--Abbey screamed and fell backward, pushing herself away. A girl stood there -- body intact, arm still reaching for her, eyes and mouth wide in silent terror. She wavered there a moment, and then her knees gave way and she fell to the floor, shaking.
"Oh, gods, I'm sorry," Abbey said, wincing. She didn't dare to put a comforting hand anywhere near the girl -- the poor thing had already seen too much.
"What--" the girl gasped, then retched, vomit spilling onto the floor. She choked, spat, and heaved for more than a minute before she could speak again. "What was that?" she said at last.
Abbey stood up. "A bad dream," she said softly.
"A dream?" the other spat, looking up at her with angry eyes. "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"
Abbey looked up at the ceiling. "I'm not sure yet," she said. "But I'm going to find out."
In her dreams that night Abbey walked the halls of the school, searching.
It was the same building she'd walked through earlier that evening, and yet it was different. The red wallpaper of the first floor was now something moist and slippery, like the lining of some creature's throat. Doors opened and closed like fleshy sphincters as she passed through them, and everywhere a heavy mist, hot and fetid, hung in the air. Her bare feet squelched against a carpet that looked and felt like an enormous tongue, twitching and lolling beneath her as she walked.
She went down to the cathedral and looked around. The mist hung more thickly here, swirling around pews of flesh and arching columns that had become the long, curving bones of a ribcage. The fog stung her eyes and chewed at her skin, as if it were made of acid.
Abbey lifted her hands to touch her temples, and a third eye opened, glowing brightly in the center of her forehead. It cast a beam of cool blue radiance before her, evaporating the burning mists and painting her surroundings in patterns of light and shadow.
Moving with slow, cautious steps, she searched the cathedral, but apart from herself it was empty. She searched the lobby, the offices, and the storerooms, but all was still and quiet.
She found the bedrooms where Mother Anna and the other sisters slept; each room looked like a bloated, membranous sac, with the women lying asleep on beds that protruded from the walls like cancerous growths. A faint shimmer of light surrounded each of them, but it was dim and feeble, like a bulb receiving too little current. The mist clung close around the sleeping women, sending out probing tendrils that tried and failed to find gaps in the auras that surrounded them.
Abbey continued walking, up the stairs and onto the second floor. Here the pale yellow walls and floors were rough and hard, and seemed to be made of bones. The students' rooms hung in neat rows, distended sacs surrounded by bars of long, sharp teeth. The energy of strong emotions radiated through the walls of the sacs like warm, red light, though the emotions of each girl were different: anger at being abandoned, fear for the lives of the unborn children some of them carried, hatred for those who had caused them so much pain. Some of the sacs glowed brightly, the emotions raw and throbbing; for others, who had found a measure of peace, the light was soft and steady. Still others seemed almost empty, drained of the capacity to feel anything, and in these the shadows gathered until they seemed almost a living thing, a darkness somehow more real than the light.
Far off down the hallway, one sac seemed to be glowing more brightly than all the others, though Abbey could only distinguish it as a distant light through the mists that filled the passage. From the same direction she heard a scratching, the sound of claws on bone. Focusing on her third eye, willing it to greater brightness, she strode toward the light and the noise.
Something was standing outside the brightly-lit sac, its bulk filling the corridor. Hunched shoulders heaved with quickened breaths; splayed feet shifted back and forth on too-short legs; gangling arms reached up to pry at the toothy bars with long, clawed hands. It peered through the bars with bright, eager yellow eyes, watching the activities within the semi-transparent sac with great interest.
Abbey hesitated, resolve wrestling with fear. She looked more closely at the brightly glowing sac, stretching out her perceptions toward it, and inside she saw Jenna and a half-dozen other girls, naked bodies writhing together in the tight confines of the room. Bright energies swirled within the sac, selfish lust and nobler affection mixing together in a whirling cloud of passion, as each heart within sought to escape their pain and loss in the pleasuring touch of the others. Jenna wove and twisted among them like a serpent among a clutch of eggs, consuming selfish and selfless energies alike as she drew off a little of the life force of each participant, replenishing and sustaining her own. Meanwhile, the beast stood outside and watched the frenzy within, jaws slathering. It squeezed one claw through the bars, barely touching one of the girls, but then it snarled and suddenly drew back again, as if stung.
Anger welled up in Abbey, and her third eye blazed with light. "Hey!" she shouted in challenge. "You get away from there!" At the same time she unleashed a blast of psychic energy, sending it out like a laser beam to try to disrupt the creature's shadow-flesh.
The beam hit the beast in the shoulder and dissipated. The creature didn't even flinch; instead, deliberately, it turned its head, yellow eyes leering at her from its nightmarish face. It laughed, a sibilant, wheezing sound. "What's the matter, little one?" it hissed. "So eager to die?"
Abbey trembled, but she held her ground. She had to do this! "No," she said. "I'm not going to let you hurt them. No more." She sent out an even stronger mind-blast, driven on a lance of anger and desperate fear. It barely left a mark in the creature's scaly hide. Abbey froze in shock and terror -- that blast would have shattered the minds of most mundanes. Why couldn't she even scratch this thing?
The beast laughed again. "Not going to let me hurt them?" it asked, its tone mocking. "You're a foolish little girl. You could not even protect the life inside of you." Its eyes flashed, and Abbey staggered--
--staggered as Victor plunged the knife into her abdomen, crumpling to the floor as the baby screamed in her mind. She tried to fight back, tried to cover herself to protect the child, but her former lover struck her in the head with a vicious blow and then stabbed the knife into her again. The child thrashed and wailed, unable to understand why pain and cold and hardness had invaded her place of safety ... and then she shuddered and died, her blood mixing with Abbey's own, her tiny, powerful little mind shredding Abbey's with the force of its passing. Abbey could do nothing, not cry, not even scream, but her pain went out in a wave of psychic energy that would touch everyone within two kilometers. Victor reared back, stunned by the mental blow, then screamed in rage and drove the knife into her once more. She only dimly heard his footsteps as he ran away, and she weakly held her hands to her stomach as she tried to stop the flow of blood. Others were coming now, words of encouragement ringing through her mind, but she couldn't hold on any longer. She felt herself slipping away, into the darkness--
--and fell to the floor, weeping, numb, and helpless.
The creature towered over her, its eyes narrowed in disgust. "You are not ripe yet, little one," it said. "But soon your time will come. Tonight I dine elsewhere."
It shambled past her, not giving her a second glance. Abbey could do nothing; she just clutched her stomach and wept.
She awoke in a start, body drenched in a cold sweat, heart pounding. She nearly hit her head on the bunk above her as she sat up.
"Hey, you all right?"
She doubled over, one hand clutching her chest, the other going reflexively to the scars on her stomach. She focused on taking deep, slow breaths, letting the tension drain out of her.
Jenna was kneeling beside her bed a moment later. "Hey, Abbey, you all right?" she asked again, her voice filled with obvious concern.
Abbey just closed her eyes and shook her head. As the immediate panic faded away, barriers of control crumbled and a torrent of emotions spilled out in its wake. She tipped over on the bed and curled up into a ball, tears coming in heavy, wracking sobs as freshly remembered grief consumed her.
"My baby!" she cried. "My baby!"
"Hey, hey hey," Jenna murmured. "Abbey..."
Abbey felt arms wrapping around her, but she was sunk too deeply in her own misery to think about the implications. She responded instinctively, reaching out for comfort, clutching tightly at the warm, slender body that had drawn near to her own. She felt skin touch skin, heard Jenna gasp, and then her mind was there alongside Abbey's, seeing the source of her pain and grief in an instant. Abbey felt Jenna's surge of hatred toward Victor for what he had done, her terror at the thing Abbey had confronted in her dream, and her deep sorrow and compassion for Abbey upon seeing all she had lost. Abbey felt Jenna's mind reach out to her own, offering strength and comfort -- clumsily, since she had no inherent skill at telepathy -- and Abbey gratefully accepted. Abbey's grief and pain were spread between them both, diluted, as a measure of Jenna's vitality and raw stubbornness flowed into Abbey. They began to drift closer, long-term memories and essential natures opening up to one another, but Abbey exerted her will and drew back before the connection could become too deep. Jenna had no defenses, no training; they would lose themselves in each other entirely, lose the distinction between Self and Other, unless Abbey deliberately took steps to prevent it. A skilled telepath could disentangle herself after such a union, but a mundane would never escape it, never regain her own personality. So she pulled away, throwing up her mental shield, and with another effort of will forced her body to separate from Jenna's, breaking the contact.
Jenna sat back on her heels, stunned. "Whoa," she breathed.
Abbey rubbed at her eyes, wiping away sleep-sand that had mingled with tears. She managed a little smile. "I told you it was dangerous," she said quietly.
Jenna looked up at her, and Abbey saw tears running down her face, as well. "Maybe, but ... damn. Abbey, I had no idea. What Victor did to you, to your baby..."
"I know," Abbey said. "I thought I'd worked through it, but--" she shook her head "--since I came here, it's like it keeps coming back to me. Like that monster is taunting me with it."
"What was that thing?" Jenna asked.
"I'm not sure," Abbey said. "Some kind of ethereal creature. Probably escaped from the Dreamlands. I think it feeds on emotions, drains them out of the person."
"Like me," Jenna whispered.
"No, not like you," Abbey said firmly. "You use emotions as a conduit to feed off a person's life source, but you don't actually drain the emotions out of them. I think this thing actually strips away a person's capacity to feel. My guess is that it gets into their heads while they sleep -- replays the darkest moments in their lives, over and over again, as it feeds off the anger and hatred and pain. Each time the person gets a little number, can feel less and less, until there's nothing left in them but despair. I spoke to Trisha in the shower last night--"
"Wait, wait. You spoke to Trisha?"
"Yes. Well, a shade of her, anyway. It's sort of a psychic imprint that people sometimes leave behind when they die, like an echo of themselves. Anyway, she told me that she had been having bad dreams before she died, and she sensed something here in the school -- that creature I saw. She couldn't really see it in her dreams, though, so I think the fact that I can may have something to do with my being a telepath. Whatever it is, it looks like it's made a home here and is feeding off the pain of the students."
"Holy shit," Jenna said. "But why'd it come here? There's no shortage of pain or suffering on the Street."
Abbey grimaced. "Honestly? I'm guessing it was drawn here by your feeding. The sheer amount of energy you've got in motion in this place, with the little sexual revolution you've fostered among the students..." She shrugged sadly. "It's like a big neon sign outside a restaurant, or moths being drawn to a flame."
Jenna drew back, horrified. "Oh my god," she whispered, putting a hand to her mouth. "I never meant to hurt anybody. I didn't--"
"Hey, hey," Abbey said, putting her hand on Jenna's shoulder and being careful not to touch skin. "Don't blame yourself for this. Like you said, you're just doing what you have to to survive. There's no way you could have known it would attract something like that. The bastard with the claws is the one who killed your friends, not you."
Jenna took a deep breath and nodded. "I know," she said, as if to convince herself. "I know." She paused and frowned, as if a thought had struck her. "Why do you suppose it couldn't touch us last night?"
Abbey had been thinking about that one, too. "Two reasons, I think -- you were awake, and the emotions were too intense. It's like fire: the warmth is good, but too close or too hot and it burns you. Maybe going through your dreams acts like some kind of insulation for it, letting it feed on strong emotions safely. If it is from the Dreamlands, its powers would naturally work better on the dream-plane. It probably was drawn here by what you were doing, found out it couldn't use that energy, and then turned to feeding on the girls after they fall asleep."
"I'll take your word for it," Jenna said. "This is too weird for me. So where did it go after it left you last night?"
"I'm not sure," Abbey said. "I--" She stopped. A mental image suddenly flooded back to her from the previous evening. "Oh, shit," she said, then scrambled out of bed and out the door, Jenna two steps behind her.
There was a crowd of people gathered in the common area -- students, sisters, and a few employees Abbey hadn't met yet. Many of the girls were sitting on the floor, sobbing, and some of them had thrown up. Abbey pushed through the crowd, planting forceful suggestions in people's minds to let her pass, until she stood in front of the window. Mother Anna was leaning against the wall, her expression haunted.
"What's happened?" Abbey asked, in a voice that brooked no argument.
Mother Anna didn't even seem to notice her impertinent tone. "Clarice," she said, the words coming slowly and with obvious difficulty. "We ... found an open window, up near the roof. She wasn't even supposed to be up there," she added, almost as an aside. "We think she ... oh, Eli..." She put a handkerchief to her eyes and fell silent.
Abbey leaned forward and looked out the window. Clarice's body was impaled on the wrought-iron fence, which seemed to have hit her squarely across the abdomen. A pool of blood lay on the grass and pavement beneath her, and her entrails dangled loosely over the fence, spilling from her ruptured body.
Abbey closed her eyes and turned away from the window. Evidently Clarice hadn't paid much attention to where she was jumping -- Abbey couldn't imagine that someone would choose a death like that deliberately.
Jenna was beside her a moment later, nearly vomiting when she saw the scene below. Abbey felt her press down revulsion with raw, seething anger.
"I want the bastard who did this," Jenna whispered fiercely in Abbey's ear, as she took her by the shoulder and led her away from the rest of the crowd. "Tell me what I can do to help."
Abbey shook her head weakly. "I don't know. Even I couldn't stop him, and I could see him coming. Hell, he showed me what he was going to do and I couldn't stop it."
"We'll find a way," Jenna insisted. "Damn it, we've got to. I'm not going to let anyone else get killed because of me." She must have noticed Abbey's expression, because she squeezed her shoulder a bit harder and gave her a shake. "Hey. Come on, we've got all day, right? He can't get us unless we're sleeping."
"That's true," Abbey admitted. "The only problem is, I'm not sure we can get to him unless we're sleeping, either."
The mood among the students was understandably subdued that morning, and the activities Jenna had anticipated in the showers failed to materialize. She looked fidgety and uncomfortable at breakfast, and Abbey wondered if that was because she'd missed her "meal". Of course, to be fair, many of the other girls were also looking uncomfortable at the sight of food, after the grisly scene that morning.
The morning service had been canceled; a pair of MCPD detectives showed up and used the time to talk to witnesses while the forensics team investigated the body and its surroundings. In this case the definition of "witness" seemed to include anybody who had been in or around the school in the last twenty-four hours. Abbey was starting to work out what she should tell them, once they finally got to questioning her, when one of the agents received a phone call. He didn't look happy at the news, whatever it was, and he and his partner left soon after. Abbey deliberately kept out of his head; scanning police officers wasn't generally a good way to promote friendly relations with mundanes.
It was Saturday, and that meant chores in place of classes -- just as well, since it was unlikely anyone would have been able to focus on the lesson. After breakfast Abbey found herself working in the gardens alongside Mother Anna, pulling weeds while the older woman pruned the hedges. Both of them stayed far away from the side of the building where Clarice had died. Up topside it was a bright and cloudless day, and even down here at Street-level the occasional sliver of sunlight found its way through the forest of concrete and steel above them. The overall gloom was no worse than that of an overcast day anywhere else; the photosensitive lamps hanging from the skyways had even turned off for the day. The early September air was cool but comfortably so, and Mother Anna had stripped down to a short-sleeved shirt and khaki work pants.
"I find that being out here helps me when my spirit is troubled," Anna was saying. "There's a kind of meditation in the work, doing my little part to guide and shape Eli's creation. Cutting out diseased branches, or the shoots that turn wild and grow away from the body ... in a way, it's something of a metaphor for the work we do here at the school."
Abbey leaned over to squint at a tiny plant, decided it was a weed, and carefully pulled it out of the soil. "Mother Anna, did you know Clarice very well?"
She could sense Anna's frown without even having to look at her. "As well as any of us did, I suppose," she said. "She'd not been with us long; four months, I believe."
"Did she ever say anything that made you think she might ... do this?" Abbey asked. "Something that might have indicated she was getting worse?"
Anna reached into a hedge to pinch off a small shoot with her fingers before answering. "Many of our girls fight long battles against depression," she said. "At times it gets better, at times worse. Clarice was not unique in that respect."
Abbey nodded. "Did she ever mention having bad dreams?" she ventured.
"Abbey, dear, I'm sorry," Anna said, coming over and putting a hand on her shoulder. "I know you're trying to make sense of this, like all the rest of us. But sometimes there is no sense to be made. Clarice was a hurt and frightened girl. We tried to reach out to her, tried to help her, but we can only do so much. I loved Clarice and will miss her terribly, but in the end she made a choice -- despite all our efforts to provide her with other, positive options." She smiled sadly. "She fell into the lie of the easy way out. Her choice wasn't rational ... but sometimes humans are not very rational creatures."
"But did she ever say anything about bad dreams?" Abbey persisted.
"Even if she did, that would be confidential between her and the sister who counseled her," Anna explained gently. "Why do you ask, dear? What's really troubling you?"
Abbey debated how much to tell her. "Since I got here, I've been having ... flashbacks," she said at last, the words coming slowly. "When I was sixteen, I had an older boyfriend. A lot older. I got pregnant ... but when I told him about it, he got angry." She rubbed her hands over her arms, trying to force some warmth back into them. "I told him I was leaving him, going back to my parents. Then he attacked me, and..." Her hand strayed back to the scars on her stomach.
"I see," Anna said gravely. "And you've been having nightmares about this?"
Abbey nodded; it was true enough. "And sometimes seeing it during the day. Just flashes of it."
"Have you sought counseling about this before?"
"Of course. After the attack, I ... had some people who helped me." She avoided mentioning her fellow telepaths in the Psi Collective, who had heard her pain and the death-screams of her psionically-gifted child. There were some things you just didn't talk about with mundanes. "I thought I had worked through it, but now it's coming up again and I--" She gestured vaguely with one hand. "I just feel so helpless."
Mother Anna sat down next to her on the ground. "What happened to the man who attacked you?"
Abbey grimaced. "Dead. He ... had an accident. Fell off a skyway." Another thing that wasn't discussed with mundanes was the way the Psi Collective dealt with those who hurt one of their own.
"I see," Anna said again. "Well, Abbey, if he's dead, then he can't hurt you anymore, isn't that right?" Abbey nodded. "And you've taken yourself out of the situation that got you in trouble in the first place, right? You've made good choices, learned from your mistakes, asked for help when you needed it?" She nodded again. "So what is it you're afraid of? You said you felt helpless, but you're already helping yourself by the choices you're making -- and there are many people here who are more than happy to help you, too. You understand that, right?"
"I understand," Abbey said, a bit frustrated. She pulled off her work gloves and reached up to rub her temples. "I don't know. Maybe I'm saying it wrong. Maybe helpless isn't exactly right."
"All right, then," Anna said, nodding. "What's a better word for how you're feeling?"
Abbey thought about it. "Powerless," she said. "Useless. People are dying, and I'm not sure if I can stop it."
"Abbey, please!" Anna said reprovingly. "What happened to Clarice was terrible, but it was something she did to herself. You can't take the burden on yourself for her choices."
"But what if there were something I could do?" Abbey asked. "What if I could do something that would keep the next person from making that choice -- like Trisha did, and Maya, and Sanji?"
Anna's face reflected pain at the sound of the girls' names, but her gaze remained steady. "You just said yourself that you can't do such a thing," she said. "Why burden yourself over something you could never have done in the first place?"
Abbey clenched her fists. "Because I should be able to do it," she said quietly. "And I don't understand why I can't. I don't understand why I'm so ... paralyzed."
"Abbey, dear heart," Anna said, putting her hand on Abbey's shoulder again. "I think I see what the problem is."
Abbey looked up at her, surprised. "You do?"
The older woman smiled compassionately. "You're suffering from what we call survivor's guilt. Your child died, but you lived, and you haven't forgiven yourself for that. No, listen to me," she said sternly, as Abbey turned away. Reluctantly, she turned back, afraid that Anna might reach for her face and trigger a mindlink if she refused to do so. "You're angry at yourself because you couldn't save your baby, and so you try to make up for it by saving everyone else. You set impossible standards for yourself and then punish yourself when you don't measure up to those expectations."
Abbey nodded -- a lot of what Mother Anna was saying had the uncomfortable ring of truth. But she still felt miserable. "So what am I supposed to do?" she asked. "Just sit back and let the world fall into the ninth hell?"
"Of course not," Anna said. "If I believed that, would I be here? Of course you should try to help others. But you can't save the whole world by yourself." She squeezed Abbey's shoulder gently. "You're a survivor, dear. You came back from a darkness that would destroy most people -- by your own courage, by the help of others, and by the grace of Eli. You could be an inspiration to many of the younger girls here. But wisdom comes in knowing when you can do something on your own, and when you need the help of other people."
Anna leaned a bit closer, fixing Abbey with those intense blue eyes. "Right now you instinctively know your limits, but you're refusing to acknowledge them because you wish you could do more. That's why you're afraid. You need to be honest with yourself about what you can really do to help people -- and then look to others, and their strengths, to help you to do what you can't do on your own." She smiled slightly, the expression obviously bittersweet. "You still won't be able to save everyone, but you'll be able to do much more than you can alone. Respecting your own limits, and trusting others to help you, will free you to act without fear. As our Lord said, A three-stranded cord is not easily broken."
Abbey nodded slowly, realization dawning. An idea was taking form in her mind... "My god," she murmured. "That might work. It's crazy, but it just might work."
"Language, dear," Anna chided.
"Sorry, Mother," Abbey said, bowing her head briefly. "And thank you. I think I know now what I have to do."
"I'm glad to hear it, dear," Mother Anna said, rising to her feet. "Just remember that there are others here who are willing to help you."
Abbey nodded once. "That's what I'm counting on."
For the rest of the morning Abbey was a bundle of nervous energy, her mind spinning furiously to work out the details of what had to be done. None of her own kind were near enough to the school for her to contact, and they wouldn't have been allowed on the grounds in any case; like it or not, she would have to do this with mundanes. Luckily, she had Jenna. Look to others and their strengths, Mother Anna had said, and that was exactly what she intended to do.
If only she could persuade Jenna to do it.
"You're crazy," Jenna said, after they'd met at lunch and Abbey explained her plan. "You're out of your mind."
"Probably," Abbey agreed. "But this can work. It makes sense."
"In Spooky-land, maybe. But come on, Abs: Clarice is dead. She jumped out a window and impaled herself on the fucking fence. Nobody is going to want to party tonight."
"I realize that, but--" she leaned forward across the table and dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper "--you're a suckie, Jenna. You can make them want to do it."
Jenna's face went pale. "Oh, hell no," she breathed. "No, Abs, don't go that way. I don't mind loosening people up now and then, but what you're talking about -- that's some seriously dark shit. I go fucking around with people's heads like that, the Libbies'll have my ass for breakfast."
"Let me worry about the Lightbringers," Abbey assured her.
"Easy for you to say!" Jenna retorted. "Spookies get equal rights and all that. They find out I've been doing what you're talking about, they won't need a jury to put me down." She lowered her head and closed her eyes a moment; when she looked back up, they were haunted. "Besides, even if I could get away with it, I don't know that I'd want to. I've spent the last five years trying to convince myself that I can be what I am, and not be evil. I don't know if Eli lets suckies into Heaven, but I've been trying to do everything I can to convince Him I'm on His side." She shook her head. "If I do this, I'm scared He'll decide I'm just another demon. What's worse, I'm scared I might enjoy it."
Silence hung across the table for a moment.
"I understand what you're saying, Jenna," Abbey said quietly. "But if we don't stop this thing, more people are going to die. The Libbies can't fix this -- I don't think anyone can see this thing who's not a teep. If we can draw it out, I can hurt it -- but not without help from you and a whole lot of other people. If you do this, you'll be helping to save these girls. You've said it yourself, you don't hurt people if you can help it. You won't have to hurt them here, either -- and anything you do to their heads will be temporary. I can make sure of that, even if you can't." She reached over and gently squeezed Jenna's upper arm, careful to keep her hand on the shirt's sleeve. "Don't you think Eli will be glad that you're helping to save lives, at great risk to yourself? Isn't self-sacrifice His whole deal?"
Jenna smirked humorlessly. "So you're saying that I can be self-sacrificing by doing something totally selfish."
"Exactly," Abbey said.
The other girl snorted, and this time Abbey saw a little amusement in her eyes. "You know, that's such a brilliant argument I can't believe the bad guys haven't thought of it yet."
"Yeah, well, they're not known for their creativity," Abbey said wryly. "How about it? Will you help me?"
Jenna sighed heavily and nodded. "All right. But you better back me up if the Man Upstairs sends someone looking for me."
Abbey grinned. "You got it. Now come on -- we've got a monster's ass to kick, and your boot's going to be the first in line."
They spent the rest of the day, between chores and afternoon service, passing the word to the other students: there was going to be a big, important meeting tonight in the TV room, they had to be there, and they weren't to say a word about it. They allowed the rumor to spread that they had a special memorial of some kind planned for Clarice. Abbey spent what time she had left hunting down every sister she could find and placing some very clear instructions inside their heads.
Come evening Abbey took her pillow and laid down on one of the couches in the TV room, as soon as they had verified that all of the staff had fallen asleep per Abbey's suggestions. At first she was tense and nervous, but she closed her eyes and ran through the meditative exercises she had been taught, willing herself into a relaxed, passive state. She kept hold of a few threads of self-awareness, just enough to ensure that she would remain lucid, and then let herself fall into sleep.
When the dreaming began, she sat up and looked around.
The room looked much as it had last night, a chamber made of bones with a carpet of soft flesh beneath. She rose from the couch, stepping "out" of her body, and watched as Jenna began to gather the students. A bright collection of human and near-human auras began to fill up the room, many of them making passing glances at Abbey's sleeping form on the couch. Fortunately, Abbey was trained enough in lucid dreaming not to be easily awakened if she didn't want to be.
Soon nearly every student in the school was gathered there, sitting on chairs, couches, and a large amount of floor space -- more than forty young women, with Jenna standing in the middle. They filled the room to capacity and stretched beyond it to fill the hallway for a good distance to either side. Abbey noted with relief that the few girls under thirteen and those who were in the late stages of pregnancy did not make an appearance. Abbey and Jenna had decided that they were "off limits" for their own protection, and Abbey had given each of them a strong compulsion to go to sleep early. She was just glad to see that none of them had resisted her instructions.
Abbey spoke, projecting her thoughts so that all the assembled students could hear her. "Listen up, ladies," she said. "This is Abbey. I'm in a lucid dream right now, and you can hear me because I'm a telepath. You'll forget all about that when this is over, though, so don't worry about it.
"Jenna and I called you here because we've found out why our friends keep dying. I don't want any of you to panic, but you need to know this. There's a monster from the Dreamlands that has decided to make a nest here, and it's been feeding on our emotions while we sleep. That's why some of you keep having nightmares. The good news is, I've figured out how I can kill it -- but to do it, I'm going to need all of you to help me."
She paused, giving the students a chance to assimilate everything. Many of the girls turned and began whispering amongst themselves, clearly unsettled at the voice that had appeared in their heads. At the same time, Abbey sent a mental whisper to Jenna. As she watched, the succubus began to radiate supernatural energies, smoky red tendrils that reached out from her aura to touch the minds and hearts of everyone present. Once the connections were made, Jenna began sending energy through the links -- changing thought patterns and orientations, recalibrating moral compasses, stripping away what little remained of the girls' inhibitions. Abbey saw each young mind transmute itself into a reflection of the succubus -- some of them readily and with little alteration, others with so much bending and twisting that what resulted bore little resemblance to what the girls' minds had once been. Abbey's speech had been carefully timed: she'd given them enough new information to ensure that they'd still be talking about it by the time Jenna had taken hold of them. The process was both swift and so gradual that the young women had not even noticed what was happening to them.
Abbey waited for Jenna to nod -- Jenna couldn't see her dream-self, but the signal had been prearranged -- and then resumed speaking. "This thing feeds on emotion," she said. "It's drawn by it. So we're going to create a little lure for it, and then we're going to waste it. Now listen carefully: I want you to do whatever Jenna tells you to do, but when I give the signal, you all grab hold of each other's hands -- or whatever other skin is close at hand -- and make sure that at least one of you grabs my hand, over there on the couch. That's critical, okay?" She waited for the somewhat puzzled nods of acknowledgment; even now many of the girls were absently touching themselves or tugging at their clothing. But they all seemed to have enough presence of mind to hear and remember Abbey's instructions. Of course, the suggestion she implanted along with the words probably had something to do with that. "Okay, cool. Jenna, go for it."
Jenna opened her eyes to slits, and in Abbey's dream-vision they burned like hot coals. "You heard the lady," she said, bringing her hands together in a loud clap. "All right, girls, let's get naked -- this is an all-you-can-eat pussy buffet, and everyone's invited!"
The response was immediate. Like dogs being released from a leash, nearly fifty teenage girls shucked off their clothing and threw themselves on each other with reckless abandon. Driven into a state of near-mindless desire by Jenna's manipulations, the crowd evolved in seconds into an orgy of almost unimaginable proportions. Torrid red emotions swirled and became a firestorm, nearly blinding Abbey with their intensity. In less than two minutes Jenna had regained all the considerable energy she had invested in "priming" this pump, and was even beginning to amass a tidy surplus. Abbey shifted her dream-self out into the hallway, beyond the range of the frantic activity, and began watching for the creature to appear.
She didn't have long to wait; the amount of emotional energy circulating in the area was easily ten times what she had seen last night. It lumbered out of the shadows, its long arms nearly dragging against the ground, knifelike hands flexing and sharpening their blades against one another. It came toward the orgy like a moth to a flame, yellow eyes wide in a mixture of astonishment, childlike delight and ravenous hunger. Its jaws slathered with anticipation, tongue lolling out between nightmare teeth. It didn't seem to even notice Abbey's dream-form standing up against the wall. Abbey had heard before that most natives of the Dreamlands lacked the capacity to change their essential natures, and regardless of their intelligence they would not retain learning or experience for very long. Seeing this creature now, she was inclined to believe it: it had seen just last night that it could not feed from the girls' emotions while they were awake, and yet here it was again, about to attempt the same thing.
Abbey wasn't about to spoil the surprise, though, so she stepped in front of the creature before it could try to reach out and feed off one of the other students. It drew back, more from surprise than anything. Abbey planted her feet, crossed her arms, and glared up at it in defiance.
"See something you like, big guy?" she asked.
The creature cocked its head and stared at her, a puzzled expression that soon became a glower of menace. "Out of my way, little one. I see your mind, and there are terrors within you to make you cower and weep."
"Maybe," Abbey said easily. "Maybe not. Either way, you're not invited to this party."
She knew what was coming next, and opened her arms wide to receive it. The creature seized her memories and thrust them back at her in fresh, vivid color, showing her once again how Victor had murdered their child and nearly killed her too. Abbey accepted the pain of the memories, acknowledged it, received it as her own -- but she refused to accept blame for them, as she had before.
I am alive, she told herself, as the scene washed over her once more. I was hurt, my daughter was taken from me, the man I had loved betrayed me -- but I am not to blame, and I am not a victim. I cannot change the past, and I will not live in it. By Fates' hands or Eli's will, I have been spared -- and it is a gift I will not squander.
When the scene faded, Abbey was still standing. The pain was every bit as real as before, but this time she had redirected its momentum like a combat throw -- and while she had still been touched, she had not been broken. She lifted her head and sneered at the beast.
"Is that the best you can do?" she asked.
The beast blinked twice, seemingly amazed. "How is this possible?" it hissed.
"It's called 'dealing', dumbass," Abbey snarled. "Every once in a while we figure it out."
The monster's thin lips curled back and it roared, then swiped at Abbey with its murderous claws. The telepath shifted her dream-form back out of reach; as a thought projection, rather than a creature whose very existence was ethereal, Abbey had the advantage in terms of maneuverability. Still, the monster was fast, and she didn't want to give it a second chance.
"Everybody," she shouted, stretching out to the minds of the young women behind her, "Now!"
For all their obvious preoccupation, the girls remembered Abbey's implanted instructions: instantly a chain of skin-to-skin contacts was formed, ending with three different hands grasping firmly to Abbey's own sleeping form. Instantly she felt the surge of the entire group's out-of-control emotions run into her like a live wire. If she let them linger too long in her mind, the backlash would destroy her sense of identity and probably leave the entire group as a single, lust-driven consciousness.
Fortunately, Abbey had another place for the live wire to go to ground.
Channeling the emotional energies from her body into her dream-form, she shifted herself forward and to one side and grabbed hold of one of the creature's massive arms. As she'd suspected, the beast was an emotion sink, and could no more refuse the energies she gave it than a black hole could reject a piece of matter.
Of course, the thing about black holes was that if one swallowed too much matter, too quickly, it would lose its ability to hold itself together, and the entire thing would simply disintegrate. The analogy proved to be an apt one.
The creature screamed, a blood-curdling shriek like a thousand nails on a thousand chalkboards, as its shadow-flesh erupted in fire at the point where her dream-hands touched it. Abbey kept the emotional energy current flowing, siphoning off the maddened lust of the orgy and shunting it directly into the beast. The monster began to glow from within, like a bright light behind a very thin lamp shade, until the flesh was consumed from the inside out and swirled away in a cloud of steam. The thing's skeleton lingered a moment longer, and then it too was destroyed, the bones charring and warping in a sheath of flames before finally crumbling to ashes.
"Okay okay let go let go let go!" Abbey yelped, mind and body still surging with power.
The girls obeyed, the connection broke, and Abbey let the dream fall away.
Abbey opened her eyes and sat up, looking out over the room full of students. Their trap for the beast had dispelled most of the ardor Jenna had so expertly initiated, and most of them were simply lying there in contented piles, pleasantly numb. Here and there a pocket of young women were still kissing and caressing each other lightly, but there was no real urgency in it. Jenna was lying atop a throne of bodies, so thoroughly gorged with energy that her eyes were glowing in the dim light.
She looked up at Abbey and smiled dreamily. "Hoo, bay-bee," she drawled. "A girl could get used to this!"
"Remember, you want to stay one of the good guys," Abbey said firmly. "This was necessary, this time, but don't let it control you."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. An' I'm gonna have Ba'al's own hangover from this tomorrow. But f'r now? Feels gooooood."
Abbey smiled. "Well, enjoy it, then. We beat the bad guy. The killing stops here."
"Yippee," Jenna said. She turned her head left and right, casting her eyes lazily around the room. "Ya hear that, girls? No more bad dreamss!"
A tired cheer rose up from the group.
"Hoh-kayy!" Jenna said, lifting herself halfway up and gesturing drunkenly with one arm. "Ever'body no longer having sex, go t' bed! Ever'body else, getcher asses over here and share wit' the rest of us!"
As the group began to break up, Jenna rose unsteadily to her feet and tottered over to Abbey. She placed her hands on the telepath's nightshirt-covered chest and leaned forward, grinning seductively.
"Look at you," she purred, idly pawing at Abbey's breasts. "Y'did all the hard work for us. I saw, y'know -- f'r an instant, when we allllll touched -- I could see it. Think we all could. Saw you kill it f'r us." She leaned a little closer, her breath tickling Abbey's ear. "Least ya deserve is t' share in some of the fun."
Abbey could feel herself growing hot and damp -- even more so than she already had been, considering she'd just been the lightning rod for the largest amount of lustful passion she'd ever personally seen gathered in one place. She could feel herself weighing options, rationalizing, thinking that it would really be all right just this once...
She laughed, recognizing it suddenly for what it was and raising a telepathic shield to deflect it. "You were chipping away at my inhibitions just now, weren't you?" she asked.
"Guilty," Jenna said huskily. "I'm a baaad, bad girl. Y'wanna punish me? Make me squeal?"
Abbey put her hand on Jenna's sternum and gently pushed away. "I'm flattered," she said, smiling. "But I can't. When teeps make love, we lose all sense of control. What I told you before about no more me, no more you -- that was real. And afterward we pick up all the pieces of ourselves that got jumbled together and put them back in our own skulls -- but one teep can't do it for two people. If I let go with you, we'd be stuck in each other's heads forever."
Jenna stuck out her bottom lip in a mock pout. "That doesn't sound so bad."
Abbey felt her smile become touched with a bit of sorrow. "You're only saying that because you don't understand it," she said gently. "And I'm afraid you never will."
She stepped back, retrieved her pillow from the couch, and stepped over and around the remaining bodies to the hallway. She turned toward Jenna and gestured at her surroundings, where even now eight eager participants were converging on the succubus. "Besides," she said, "you've got plenty of company ... and I've never been too good with crowds." She smiled. "Good night, Jenna."
"G'night, Abs -- ya big ssspoilsssport," Jenna slurred, as Abbey turned and began walking back to her room. "Ya just go on, then, go t' bed. Damn spookies, think they're too good f'r us, don'tay girrls? Well, peachy fuggin' keen f'r them -- I got all I need ri' cheere. Oh ... oh! Sarah, love, a little to the -- oh! Yeah, bay-bee, tha's the spot! Haayy, Spooky! Fr'get 'too good f'r us', cuz I got un-fuggin-beleeevable ri' cheere in my -- hoh! Hot damn, woman--!"
Abbey just shook her head, grinned and kept on walking. Apparently Dreamland beasts weren't the only creatures who never changed their essential natures.
Abbey removed her hand from the man's forehead, breaking the link, then put it back in the deep pockets of her coat. It was still early morning, and the air was cold.
The man opened his eyes, and for a moment they shone with blue light before settling back to their usual, mundane appearance. He blinked a few times, brushed a lock of his short, white-blonde hair out of his face, then nodded.
"Well then," he said, his baritone voice falling somewhere between the clipped accent of the upper levels and the mild drawl of the middle class. "It would appear that everything is in order." He reached into the inside pocket of his black suit jacket and pulled out a pair of equally black sunglasses, putting them on in one smooth, practiced motion. "Superb work, as usual, Ms. Preston. I knew you were the right person for this job."
"Thank you, sir," Abbey said, bowing briefly. "I'm glad I was able to help -- though if possible, sir, I'd ask that you not call me with any more jobs like this for a while." She looked down at her feet, then back up again. "They're a little hard on the psyche."
"As you wish," the man said, straightening his tie -- also black, though in the middle of it there was a gold tie-tack in the shape of a twin cross. "You know how to contact us when you're ready to work again. In the meantime, the agreed-upon sum of fifty thousand will be deposited in the Collective's numbered account, contingent upon your guarantee of silence regarding the entire affair."
"It won't leave the Collective," Abbey said, "on one condition."
The corner of the man's lip twitched slightly. "Yes?"
Abbey crossed her arms. "Jenna," she said. "The succubus. I don't want you bothering her, Janus. You and the rest of the Lothanasi leave her alone."
Janus paused a moment, as if considering, then nodded once. "Very well; agreed. Her actions, though dubious, were taken pursuant to our objectives. Provided that henceforth she abides by our usual understanding with her people, I give you my word that no harm shall come to her on our account." His lip twitched again. "Though you might advise her to keep us apprised of her movements. Officially, the law considers her a tiefling, with the legal rights common to all mortals. At the moment I see no reason for that to change. I trust that she will not give us one."
"Yeah, me too," Abbey said.
"Very well, then," Janus said. "We are agreed. The fifty thousand will be deposited by the end of the day." He bowed. "Good day, Ms. Preston."
"Good day, Janus," Abbey said, bowing in turn.
They turned and went their separate ways, to two skimmers parked on opposite sides of the public square. Abbey felt a wave of warmth and love radiating from the vehicle as she approached it, and she smiled and sent the same in return. She opened the door and climbed into the back seat, touching hands briefly with the other three occupants.
*Agent Starson is satisfied?* Fiona asked, eyebrows raised slightly. No speech was used; none was needed.
*He is,* Abbey confirmed, as Brian pulled the skimmer away from the curb and merged into traffic. *The money's on its way -- I don't think food's going to be a problem this month.*
*The Libs sure are anxious to keep this under wraps,* Rebecca said thoughtfully. *I wonder if they're worried about the reaction when people find out there are things coming across that only teeps can handle.*
*It would tend to shatter their all-powerful image,* Abbey admitted. *Of course, now that they know what they're up against, they could probably hand the job off to Nocturna's dreamwalkers. But you're right -- I don't think they could have figured out what it was without us.*
*Imagine that: a need for spookies,* Brian said dryly. *Next thing you know, they're going to be demanding the right to breed and own property.* As the three women chuckled, he caught Abbey's gaze in the rear-view mirror. *Hey, Brown-Eyed Girl. You ready to go home?*
Abbey smiled. *Almost,* she said. *Just a couple more stops first...*
Abbey stood before a small white gravestone, under the cover of maple trees whose leaves were just beginning to turn. To either side of her were her three companions -- adopted siblings, lovers, friends -- and they stayed close and held hands as she knelt and laid a bouquet of flowers before the stone.
She traced her finger over the letters: Darla Irene Preston -- stillborn, 1996 C.R.
"Someday," she said, smiling through her tears. "we'll see each other again. We'll hug, and we'll laugh ... and I'll see what a big, beautiful girl you've become while the angels raised you for me. I can't wait for that day."
She looked up, paused, felt the encouragement the others were sending her, then looked back down again. "I'm sorry I never got the chance to hold you. I'm sorry I never felt your mouth on my breast, or heard your first word, or rocked you to sleep at night with a lullaby." She sniffed. "I'm sorry you never got to look out from the top of the Citadel or dip your feet in the Sea of Stars. But most of all, I'm sorry for all the little, everyday moments of growing up I never got to share with you."
She paused again, wiping back the tears that were running freely from her eyes. "Things don't always turn out like we want them to. I'm sorry for all the beautiful things we missed together -- but I'm not sorry for all the pain and suffering in this world that you're going to miss. I know it hurt so much when you left, baby -- for you, and for me -- but for you, that was the worst it'll ever be." She smiled again, and fought to control her voice. "And I hope that where you are now, you can run, and laugh, and play, in bright sunny fields where someone who loves you is always there to watch over you. I hope Abba sits you on His lap and sings for you all the lullabies that have ever been written, and all the bedtime stories that ever were. I hope the angels take you flying in the clouds and -- and teach you how to paint a rainbow. And then -- then I'll look up in the sky and know--" she sobbed, caught her breath "--that it's so, so much better for you than it is for me."
She said nothing for a while, just knelt there and wept -- joy mixing with grief, smiles with tears. At last the sobs eased, and with deep, steady breaths, she turned her face to the sky, the sun and clouds overhead mingling with the fluttering leaves.
"I have to say good-bye now, Darla," she said. "I know you're in a good place, the place that's right for you. And now I have to go find the place that's right for me. I love you so, so very much -- but I've been living in the day I lost you for three years, and it's time for me to go on. I need to go and find out who I am now -- and I'll let you get on with being whoever Abba made you to be." She closed her eyes and smiled. "So you go on and run in those fields ... listen to the stories, and paint the rainbows. And someday I'll find you there." She rose to her feet. "But for now, it's time for me to go and walk in the sunlight, too."
She kissed the tips of her fingers and pressed them to the face of the cold white stone. Then, turning, she stepped into the arms of her companions, and together they walked away, out into the dappled sunlight.